Over the last few years, Google Flights has evolved from a simple search engine to the industry standard. Here’s how to use Google Flights.
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Why Google Flights Is The Best
Google Flights has the best flight search technology at its core. Years ago, Google purchased ITA Matrix which held a feed from every major carrier and all possible flight connections. It once boasted more than three million route options from Boston to Los Angeles because it would pull every option including flying crazy routes like Boston-Frankfurt-Seoul-Los Angeles.
This technology made ITA Matrix a darling of the frequent flyer community and that technology is still at work in Google Flights but in a simplified format. Google doesn’t make much from the sale of airfare, but rather from hotels. They know, as travel agents do, that if a user books a flight they are more likely to also book the hotel with your service and have built a business around that.
Still today, however, Google Flights is not a true Online Travel Agent (OTA.) They do not ticket the flights for most carriers but rather send travelers to those airlines to book directly with the airline. This allows the site to display the best search results for the cheapest flights without handling the booking in-house.
Start Your Search
To start your Google Flights search go here: flights.google.com (I use it so often to shop that it’s on my frequently visited pages and bookmarked itself.) For a simple search for known departure and arrival points on committed travel dates, enter in the information for your trip.
A number of flight options will appear ordered by price and transit time. For example, if there are two fares from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale that are the same (matched) price of $198, the shorter trip (connecting through Atlanta instead of through Denver) will show up first.
In this example you can see that flights for this sample trip are prioritized first by direct flights, then departure time, then cost. Spirit leads the way at $73 roundtrip (though you can likely get this down to around $40 roundtrip by buying it directly at the airport.) However, instead of showing the later flight well into the evening at the same price, Google Flights has placed other direct flights in order of lowest price to highest price as the other options.
Another key feature, since the company tracks flight prices, is that little box that shows whether these prices are higher than normal or lower than normal flight prices. This will let those who don’t usually shop for this route where they have a flight deal or whether it is unusually expensive.
You’ll also notice that it shows alternative airports for the same general area. In this case, it includes direct flights to Miami though, oddly, it doesn’t show any options for West Palm Beach, a short distance from Fort Lauderdale.
One of my favorite features of Google Flights is shopping via the calendar function. When searching from the primary screen users can instantly see the prices for alternative dates. For some trips, there is limited flexibility or difference (like the Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale example) but for other destinations, it can be dramatic. For example, I priced a return flight from Pittsburgh to Tokyo (TYO, more on that in the next section) in Business Class.
When I pulled up the calendar to select my dates, all of the prices were revealed for alternative dates. Additionally, the best deals in that window of time (usually a month) are colored green so I know that is the best possible option. Moving my search out from the immediate time frame, I can find the cheapest fares in the coming months are in July. Google Flights priced those in the mid $4000 range, not a cheap flight but less than half the price from my trip in the next two weeks.
Price discrepancies aren’t always this dramatic, as the Fort Lauderdale example demonstrates, but in some cases, it can be a substantial difference even by just one day. On July 4th the price is $1400 more expensive than flying on July 5th, but flying on July 6th is just $78 cheaper before the price climbs again.
I often use the calendar function to determine when I will take a trip.
Destination flexibility is probably what Google Flights does best. Some OTAs have added this feature, but Google Flights does a great job of allowing you to pick a state, country, or region to make your trip possible. For example, let’s say you’re ready for a break and have never been to Mexico, just type Mexico in your destination and submit the search.
My dates are still locked in, and the calendar functionality won’t show prices since there are dozens of possibilities and simply too much to show accurately. The results screen looks different until you select your destination and then returns to a normal flight option screen where the calendar function is again enabled.
Google Flights has gotten so smart that it will suggest a more economical way of getting to your destination. In the Pittsburgh-Tokyo business class search, it suggested I consider flying from Washington Dulles, a four-hour drive from Pittsburgh, or a much cheaper flight than the $4,000 difference in fare.
Users can also search whole continents by typing that in for the destination.
For cities with more than one airport, there are a few options. For example, in the Fort Lauderdale example, it already knew that many flyers would be just as comfortable flying into Miami and showed that result as well. But for cities that have multiple airports like Washington, DC or Tokyo, typing in the destination code: WAS or TYO may pull a departure from Dulles and a return into Reagan National, using TYO will utilize both Narita and Haneda airports for Tokyo. Once a departure airport is chosen, the same return airport is offered exclusively.
Completing The Purchase
The final purchase is made directly on the website of the airline or in some cases with an OTA listing the flight deal. At first, I didn’t understand why Google would want to pass on making the booking if not for the meager commissions ($3-5/United States domestic coach ticket) then out of convenience for its users.
However, with time it has become clear that Google makes more money from advertising for all of the airlines than it would from commissions on tickets sold. The one exception is Spirit Airlines for which Google is trialing a system of booking their flights directly and it includes all of the ancillary charges as well.
Google Flights is my go-to search engine, replacing my fascination with ITA Matrix for its easy user interface. Its flexibility helps me to select destinations and timelines with ease and I can’t imagine booking without it.
What do you think? Is Google Flights your go-to search engine?
Have you found a way to show mixed-class itineraries on Google Flights? (The value proposition for flying Business Class from the West Coast to Europe, and returning in Economy/Premium Economy often works well for me).
I have always used ITA Matrix to show both Economy and Business and then make a best guess, then gone to airline websites to check mixed-class prices. Given Google’s flexibility, am I missing something?
“The one exception is Spirit Airlines for which Google is trialing a system of booking their flights directly and it includes all of the ancillary charges as well.”
Many airlines have “Book on Google” activated and it’s been around for many years.
@john Johnson – I checked American, Delta, United, (Southwest doesn’t list so it can’t be one) Frontier, Allegiant, JetBlue, Alaska, KLM/Air France, Lufthansa, Emirates, IcelandAir, Qatar, and Etihad. I did find that Alaska and Lufthansa will book directly from Google so you’re correct that Spirit is not the only one and I will correct. But this group accounts for the majority amount of global air travel and I had to hunt to find others so I’m not sure that “many” is accurate either.
Google flights is useful, but it lacks a lot of the power of ITA Matrix.
To build on what Ken said, I can specify fare classes to force ITA to price Premium Economy one way and Business another. Or to compare what buying a more expensive fare class for more miles/Elite Miles would cost.
If Google flights had the functionality of ITA Matrix I’d use it much more.
I completely agree. ITA was too technical with no booking link, Google Flights has been too focused on being easy to use to utilize all of the power it has available. An expert mode switch on Google Flights would be a dream come true.
I agree with the posters above on the mixed fare issues. If it could just fix that, I would love it, but I often fly economy outbound and Business/First back as a way to save money and have something to look forward to.